Sondheim, Stage Kisses, and Connection After Isolation

I love this photo of Stephen Sondheim with his friend, Bernadette Peters, one of the greatest interpreters of his work. Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd. / Getty Images

Four or five years ago, they did a revival of Sweeney Todd in New York City where you could eat meat pies, a main plot element in the Stephen Sondheim musical, right in the theater before the show began. My now-husband, then-boyfriend’s mother and grandmother had an extra ticket and invited him, but he doesn’t care much about musicals so sent me instead. It was, if I may say, a better use of the ticket; I had been obsessed with Sondheim’s musicals for as long as I can remember.

It was a well-produced show and the meat pies were a fun gimmick, but the thing that made this performance so memorable, perhaps the most memorable of any show I’ve seen, was that Stephen Sondheim himself (!) attended the performance and sat just two seats away from me (!!). A much younger man, presumably his partner, sat between us.

The master’s presence (and such a near presence!) alone would have made the experience remarkable, but two things added to the magic: One, members of the cast and crew warmly greeted him and his companion on a first-name basis; the warmth and intimacy touched me, given Sondheim’s reputation for struggling with intimacy earlier in life.

Two, something I will never forget: during certain songs, Sondheim lightly conducted the music with his hands, draping them over the banister in front of him and waving them gently outward, inward, in time to his own masterful compositions. I just adored that, his love for his own music, music that so many of us love so much.

I had my first kiss to a Sondheim song. Okay, it was a stage kiss, but at age 13, that counted!

It was a summer camp musical revue, and I was doing “Lovely,” the ingenue Philia’s duet with her love interest, Hero, in the first Broadway musical for which Sondheim wrote both the music and lyrics, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

The first time I ran the song with my scene partner, or the first time we practiced the kiss anyway, was in a preschool classroom in front of my best friend’s dad, the theater camp director. Yes, I had a crush on the boy, and yes, my best friend’s dad confirmed later it was a very awkward moment.

I played the role again in a full production later on, when I was a junior in high school, again doing the stage kiss with a boy for whom it was probably his first kiss. (I had had my first real kiss a little bit earlier, with a friend of one of the boys in this production.)

We theater nerds all loved Sondheim, especially the lonelier stuff, probably because he was so good at capturing that longing feeling that teenagers always feel, especially if they feel a little bit different, which any theater kid does at least some of the time. Especially the boys, I think. Gay or straight, if you’re a theater boy, in most parts of this country, you’re a little bit different. (But there was always something for them in Sondheim.) Theater girls, too. (But there was always something for us in Sondheim.) Unless you go to certain metropolitan high schools, it’s probably impossible to be a theater kid and be capital-p Popular.

That’s okay. We had each other. And we had our moody show tunes to keep us company when we needed a good wallow.

When I couldn’t wait to get out of my hometown and start my life already: “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” from Sweeney Todd. When I was pining after someone and feeling insecure (often), “Losing my Mind,” from Follies (and yes, I know this is a ridiculous song for a teenager to relate to.) When I was pining after someone and feeling confident (less often), “Sooner or Later,” a song Sondheim wrote for the movie Dick Tracy. When I was feeling wise, “Moments in the Woods,” from Into the Woods.

I couldn’t wait to grow up and star in Sondheim musicals. That’s really what I thought I would become, a Broadway actress. I chose my college for its drama program, but I didn’t end up majoring in drama. (In fact, after high school I only performed in one more play, an Edward Albee joint. Albee’s work had some of that loneliness of Sondheim, but also so much frostiness. Sondheim was like an artist in a chilly room, trying—if failing—to warm it up. Albee was like an artist in a chilly room, content to let the temperature keep dropping.)

No, I never sang another Sondheim song on stage again, but wherever I went I found the other Sondheim lovers. It can take a while; the older you get, perhaps the closer you have to grow to a new friend before you confess your love of Into the Woods, let alone A Little Night Music. But when you do find each other, it’s bliss to talk about your favorite songs, your favorite lyrics, the clever rhymes and wordplay that just make life better, even when they’re about the things that make life sad.

There’s something about the artists who touch you as a teenager that can’t be compared. I don’t think our hearts are as open to music or storytelling in adulthood as they are in adolescence. The feelings we feel about art then can never be replicated, for better or worse. Mostly for worse.

I wonder how many people had their first stage kiss to a Sondheim song. His musicals aren’t as amorous as those of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein—all of those Rogers and Hammerstein sopranos get at least one good smooch by the time the curtain falls. Sometimes the altos, too. But it has to be thousands, right? Forum, Into the Woods, and West Side Story are popular high school productions, each with its own soprano-tenor love plot. And that’s not even factoring in the backstage kisses, the real-life kisses that happen in the wings.

Any fandom creates connections, and Sondheim fandom certainly did that for many of us. But more than that, I think his songs created other kinds of connections, told stories of difference and loneliness that perhaps even the most cosseted teenager could relate to, if only every so often she struggled to find a seat in the cafeteria. There’s something universal in that feeling of isolation he captured so well. Who, at one time or another, couldn’t relate to the lyric from A Little Night Music, in which the unpopular Henrik airs his frustration at being left on the shelf:

As I’ve

often stated,

It’s intolerable

being tolerated.

Wouldn’t you know it? By the end of the show, it’s Henrik who gets the girl, as hard as that would have been to believe in Act I.

That’s what I think about now, a day after the news of his death, as I remember Stephen Sondheim conducting his own music at an intimate revival of Sweeney Todd, his work adeptly performed, good company at his side. He may have been lonely for a long time, according to the reports, but he got his dose of close company in Act III.

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

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Sarah Begley

Sarah Begley

Director at Medium working with authors and books. Formerly a staff writer and editor at Time.